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modern ms manners: the etiquette of group work

Ask any university student, employee, committee member or basically anyone in the business of organising things what their pet hate is and I guarantee the answer will be the same – “group work”. The need to work as part of a group at some stage in one’s life is an inevitability. Whether it be an assignment, part of your job, or just putting together the local meat raffle, working as part of a team of people is unavoidable in modern society.

It is also an important skill to possess. Group work teaches you to delegate tasks, share your ideas and to operate together as a team towards a common goal. However, it also teaches you patience, and then stretches that patience threshold to the limit as you try and deal with others in your group whose working style (or lack thereof) clashes with your own. I have had my fair share of group work experiences, some or which have been positive and even quite successful. On the whole, however, I have too often found myself wanting to punch a computer screen upon the receipt of an email from my peer offering some passive aggressive reason as to why they were unable to receive my previously sent submission.

Most job applications will require you to explain your skills in being able to work as part of a group and also being able to work independently. Things to refer to here include the ability to draw on the strengths of your team members and the lessons in compromise you obtained throughout the experience. Things that are better left unsaid include any references to the overwhelmingly incompetent peer you had to deal with in your last assignment who was basically a free loader and did nothing whilst you stayed up all night and manically did the entire project.

Any references to group work remind me of the childhood folktale of “The Little Red Hen” where a particularly resourceful hen decides it wants to grow some grain to eventually make some bread. She asks all the other barnyard animals to help, but they are too busy tweeting or playing the Golden Circle equivalent of Farmville (puns intended) to help out. So the hen grows some grain, grinds it into flour and eventually makes some bread. Suddenly all the animals are able to help to eat the bread, but the sassy little hen refuses to share and gets to eat it all.

In life there are going to be times when we will be happy to share the bread amongst the team. Then there are times where we might wish to take that loaf of bread and brandish it as a weapon against some members of the group. This is probably not a good move. Therefore, in an effort to ensure that group work is a positive experience for all, I have compiled a list of tips:

Whilst you might be a hen, you are going to be working with a whole barnyard:

Drawing on the analogy from the children’s story, it is important to recognise that you are going to be working with all different working types. Whilst someone might be your friend and a great person to hang out with, that does not necessarily translate into having a compatible working style to your own. If you can pick your team, consider what sort of work ethic would sort your own. It is useful to have a mix of styles; that way you can draw upon each others’ strengths.

However, if you cannot pick your team, you must realise this whole experience will be quite challenging for you. It helps to surround yourself with like-minded people outside of the project who will empathise with you as you reiterate how crazy the project is making you.

Do not be afraid to delegate:

One of the key benefits of working in a group is the idea that the project is able to be completed by the entire group. Whether this actually happens is another question entirely. The best way to ensure that everyone contributes is to have a clear discussion at the beginning of the project of what the task involves, and what the parameters of each role will be. If you know you are not particularly confident in speaking in front of a group of people, then let your peers know and offer to do something else. We all have our own individual strengths and weaknesses, and it is important to be upfront about them. However, it is important to note that laziness is not a weakness, it is a choice.

Set a reasonable schedule and try and stick to it:

Most group projects have an external deadline (e.g. submission date, event etc). Do not let this be the only deadline for your work. Break down the entire project into smaller, workable deadlines and then cross reference these with other commitments each group member has. If you know you are going to be slammed with other assessments for two weeks, then let your peers know and try and work around that. Although if your reason for being busy is a spontaneous holiday in Spain, be prepared for your peers to be less forgiving.

Find a balance in being selfless and in being a pushover:

This is a skill that is important not just in working as part of a team, but in life generally. Whilst you may have what you consider to be the best solution to the problem, it might be that someone else in your group has an even better solution. Or they might just be better in persuading others to consider their solution over yours. Being able to compromise and take (constructive) criticism is a crucial part of being an adult. However, if someone is just being a bully or failing to pull their weight, feel free to indulge in a moment of childish behaviour and brandish some sort of bread in their face.

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